meat box business

How to start a meat box business

Over the last few years I’ve built up a small meat box business direct from our family farm. It might not appeal to all farmers, but with very little in the way of startup costs – it’s not that difficult to give it a try.

I’ve enjoyed building up our meat box business over the last few years and from a small sideline, it’s developed into one of the major income streams on our family farm.

To help other farmers thinking about selling meat direct from the farm gate, I’ve outlined a few tips below to help you get started. You can also find another 18 case studies in a report by the Landworkers Alliance (LWA) titled Direct sales and short supply chains: Bringing the market back into farmers hands‘ which was published last October (we were one of the 19 case studies).

Farm size

Any size of farm can sell direct. We recently featured a part time ‘farmer’ who grows microgreens in his living room, which he sells at his local farmers market.  If you’re raising livestock the likelihood is you’ll need a bit more space!

Our family farm (Hockham Farm) is 45 acres but we are fortunate to rent around 300 acres of  farmland locally, including 150 acres of conservation grazing on the Pevensey Marshes.

Local and native breeds

We have a herd of mainly Sussex cows and an Aberdeen Angus bull. My parents previously preferred continental beef animals (as they produced more meat for the wholesale market) which were sold direct to the large processors and ended up on supermarkets shelves.

When I returned to the farm in 2014, I convinced them to try some native Sussex heifers to build a herd of low input cattle that thrive off grass. We now have nearly 30 Sussex cows.

Direct Business Model

Our Angus x Sussex beef animals typically finish between 24-30 months of age with a deadweight carcass of between 300 to 360kg. After hanging the carcass for 28 days and butchery this results in around 200-220kg of saleable meat.

To keep things simple we pre-sell 20 boxes of 10 kilo beef at £110 each, resulting in £2,200 of income at least. Often we have left over mince which we sell in 450-500 gram packs or have them made into burgers. You need to factor in the cost of slaughter and butchery (which comes to around £500 in total). And the cost of packaging for any cool boxes you send via courier (around £2.50 per box).

We add on the cost of third party delivery which is around £10, though some businesses choose to include this in the box price. After deducting all your costs there is still a reasonable profit left to cover your time and to pay the farm a better return than the wholesale price.

You don’t need an eCommerce website

We take orders for our meat boxes mainly by email and using social media.  We also have a simple reservation form on my website here which took a couple of hours to set up.

This allows customers to reserve a box via a simple contact form – which then sends me an email with their details.

Initially you don’t even need a website, though these days it’s not difficult or expensive to set up a basic website using a template from squarespace or wix.

Social media marketing

We  use social media channels to market our meat boxes – especially Facebook, where we’ve had a great deal of success using local groups to post free adverts. This method has also allowed us to build up a local customer base who order from us regularly.

Boxes and deliveries

When I first started out back in 2016 I focused on selling to London using cool boxes and a third party overnight courier. This worked well initially but then we had a few bad experiences, with a number of the boxes getting lost in the warehouse hub. As the meat is perishable we’ve not been able to find any insurance cover and any losses result in a large chunk of the profit being wiped out as we reimburse the customer.

This has led us to focus more on local customers, where we can deliver the boxes ourselves – which now accounts for over 50% of our customer base. Prior to Covid-19 I would occasionally go door to door leafleting and occasionally get orders for our next batch of boxes.

Selling meat boxes isn’t for everyone but can be fun

Selling meat boxes isn’t for all farmers – it takes time to build up a customer base and find a model that fits the way you farm. If you can make it work – perhaps by involving a younger member of the family, selling direct to the public can be very rewarding in terms of feedback and provide a useful income stream.

Also unlike a lot of diversification ventures it doesn’t require a lot of up front investment. You don’t need your own butchery. We work with a local butchery a few miles from the farm – who do everything to our specification; including vac packing, labelling and sorting the meat into 10 kilo bags / boxes. You also don’t need an expensive website and or fancy branding – a basic logo will do. So long as you have a good product, have a smart phone to take a few photos and can use a few basic tools on social media – you’re good to go.

Selling direct is also a good way to trial working with the public. We don’t have a farm shop but it is something we are considering for the future. We are also interested in running on farm events and other workshops so selling your meat direct is a great way to start building a relationship with customers.

Lamb boxes and skins

We also sell some lambs direct (£80 for a half and £150 for a whole) though given the current high wholesale price of lambs it’s harder to justify selling them direct given the slim margin. We like to support our local livestock market (Hailsham), especially if you can average £80-100 for a finished lamb.

One thing we are experimenting with this year is getting all the skins from our lambs processed into sheepskins to add value. We did 2 skins for ourselves last year – which we love and have had friends and family express interest in buying them. So we salted all the skins from the last batch of 15 lambs and will be getting them processed by Devonia in Buckfastleigh.

Are there any pieces of essential tools/equipment/software

We use google sheets to keep track of orders and mailchimp is great for creating and sending newsletters to your customer base. We also use the free online design software Canva to create flyers and social media adverts.

As I mentioned earlier social media channels work well for promoting our meat – it’s definitely worth setting up a facebook page and instagram account. We don’t use twitter, though it works well for some farmers.

What are the key factors that helped with development

One of the key factors has been our gradual transition to more native bred animals. Working closely with my parents to convince them of the merits of a lower input animal that can be finished on grass, whilst at the same time giving us the opportunity to market direct to the public.

My mum, who was an Accident and Emergency staff nurse for 40 years, previously sold our lamb and pork (when we used to keep a few pigs) direct to her friends and work colleagues in the local hospital during the 90s and early 00s but gave it up as she found it too time consuming.

So when I returned home to the family farm in 2014 there was extra labour and drive to re-establish direct sales. Coupled with the rise in demand for local sustainably reared meat and more ways to sell direct – there’s never been a better time to market your own meat direct.

Working with family and local businesses

If you can try to involve your family – my wife Hannah helps out with marketing and on delivery days. I would say try to keep an open mind as to  your potential customer base. We now do a mix of local (free delivery within a 15 mile radius) and further afield deliveries.

Build a good working relationship with your butcher – it’s amazing how much you’ll learn about all the cuts and that really helps with marketing. We’ve experimented with a couple of carcasses during the summer, offering steak and bbq boxes but be careful that you don’t end up being left with lots of mince.

We’ve found that the 10-kilo boxes work best for us – you can make more money if you sell cuts individually but it’s also a lot more work.

Lastly building a customer base is vital. You can do this in different ways but we find that mail chimp works really well. It’s free to use and allows you to market directly to your existing customers via email – we send regular ‘reserve your beef boxes now’ emails. One thing I’ve recently added is a button to allow people to message me via WhatsApp message from the email, which has been successful.